PERSPECTIVES: ‘No Dogs, No Jews’ – no evidence

Toronto attempted to eliminate

The phrase has burrowed into the Canadian Jewish consciousness. Community leaders, politicians, local history buffs and yes, journalists, almost reflexively deploy the words to illustrate the horrible prejudices Jews encountered in Canada from the 1930s to the ’50s.

The oft-cited message, repeats the Canadian Encyclopedia’s entry on anti-Semitism, appeared on signs in many places: at public parks and beaches in Toronto, outside resorts and hotels in the Laurentians and Ontario’s cottage country, and in the vacation areas of Manitoba and British Columbia.

A few years ago, a Jewish candidate for public office uttered the “no dogs or Jews” meme. As recently as a few weeks ago, the Centre for Israel and Jewish Affairs (CIJA), in a press release, recalled that “signs in public parks went so far as to declare: ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’ ”

There’s a problem, however, and it may shock you: there is no proof that such signs existed. Several top Jewish historians don’t recall ever encountering evidence of them in their research, with one acknowledging the signs could be an urban myth.

Pundits often say: “The absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” True. But logic also tells us that given the voluminous files at various archives brimming with photographic and documentary material confirming rampant anti-Semitic attitudes in Canada in that era, wouldn’t there be verification of the most insulting example, the sign declaring “No Dogs or Jews”?

There’s not one.

The Canadian Jewish Congress national archives in Montreal and the Ontario Jewish Archives, Blankenstein Family Heritage Centre in Toronto hold photos of signs from the era with the following messages: “Christians Only – Jews Not Allowed”; “No Jews Wanted;” “Jews Not Allowed”; and several examples of “Gentiles Only.”

They were found in Jackson’s Point, Ont.; Forest Hill Lodge near Burleigh Falls, Ont.; the Mossington Park Resort on Lake Simcoe; the Cawthra Mansions Tea Rooms in Toronto; Lakeside Point in Scarborough; Musselman’s Lake beach in Ontario; and Pleasant Valley Ranch in Oshawa.

There’s one ominous number from the Quebec resort town of Ste. Agathe, north of Montreal, warning Jews to “scram while the going is good.” (The French message says the village is French-Canadian, “and we will keep it that way.”)

The Jewish Public Library in Montreal also has no record of signs referring to dogs.

The signs were said to be on two Toronto beaches: Sunnyside and Kew. The City of Toronto’s online archives produced no evidence, while the response from archivist Liam Peppiatt to an inquiry a few weeks ago was: “I cannot seem to find anything in our database that reflects what you are looking for.”

Toronto attempted to eliminate “Gentiles Only” signs starting in 1932, when the Jewish alderman John Judah Glass, chairman of the parks commission, succeeded in forbidding the erection of any signs on city property without commission approval. Ontario’s 1944 Racial Discrimination Act banned racist signs and symbols (and would be used to overturn covenants forbidding the sale of land to Jews).

Several years ago, the late Stephen Speisman, the foremost historian of Jewish Toronto, wrote an irate letter to the Toronto Star complaining of an earlier writer’s charge that the “No dogs or Jews” signs were myths. Speisman replied: “Although I am not aware of any photograph depicting such signs, there are enough long-time Toronto residents who claim to have seen them to suggest they may have existed,” (emphasis added). With due respect to Speisman, that’s a lot of waffling.

The writer of the original missive added that in a 1994 letter to him from Pierre Berton, the popular historian had said: “There is no evidence whatsoever – and I looked into this some years ago – that there was ever a sign in Toronto saying ‘No dogs or Jews allowed.’ ”

Gerald Tulchinsky, in Canada’s Jews: A People’s Journey, noted the “no dogs” signs “allegedly” existed. Historians Lita-Rose Betcherman, Allan Levine and Frank Bialystok (and others) have written that the signs did exist (they were “displayed prominently,” said Bialystok) but none provided references or examples.

Ira Robinson, chair of Concordia University’s Institute for Canadian Jewish Studies, said he could find “no visual evidence of ‘No dogs and Jews’ on the same sign.” Such signs, he added, “may be an urban legend, but it is one solidly based on evident and pervasive anti-Semitic attitudes in both English and French Canada in that era.”

Other Jewish academics said they had no knowledge of such signs, or just never researched them.

In their 1987 book The Riot at Christie Pits, Cyril Levitt and William Shaffir depended heavily on research by the late Ben Kayfetz, an expert in the history of Ontario Jewry. Both authors said Kayfetz claimed never to have seen such a sign and that he doubted their existence. There is “no hard evidence” to prove these signs existed, the authors concurred in a footnote.

However, “when challenged, several of our respondents emphatically asserted that they had seen them with their own eyes.”

Irving Abella, co-author of None is Too Many, said he had no “personal knowledge” of such signs, though he, too, had met “many people who remember seeing them.”

But memories can be notoriously muddy and conflate or combine different events. At resorts, on beaches and in public parks, there were doubtless signs reading “No Dogs” and others with some variation of “no Jews” or “Gentiles only.” Over the decades, these two warnings could have morphed into a single declaration. CJC archivist Janice Rosen concurs: “I agree that there were separate signs and that memory fused them.”

In no way does the issue of whether such signs existed detract from the virulent anti-Semitism of the era. But it’s better to set record straight. 

It’s time to bring the dogs in.